My time in the magical Med - from models to monasteries.
I was by now 31. I’d left my career in TV in London to teach English in Mexico, lark around on boats in Bermuda, work as a journalist and tour guide in Argentina, and now I was moving to Spain.
I chose the Spanish Balearic island of Mallorca because while I was on a roll speaking Spanish, Mallorca also had a large English speaking population and as a result some English language magazines. My plan was to get a job as a journalist on one of them before my money ran out and my 3 year adventure expired.
My best friend went with me for a two week holiday. We rented a car and after I’d dropped her off at the beach each day I drove to all the magazines on the island handing out my CV. After a few rejections I got a gig, writing copy for a poker website. I mean I find it astounding now that I had such nuts, I’d never even played poker before but there I was professing to be a gambler. I don’t know how I got away with it, I clearly had a great poker face.
When my friend left I couldn’t afford the hotel room by myself so the hotel receptionist said I could crash on her sofa. I’d get home from the office and she’d teach me poker while chain-smoking and shouting at the TV. On weekends I’d traipse around the capital city, Palma, in search of an apartment I could afford. It was here that I got chatting to a lovely chap called Rory who turned out to be my fairy godfather. He’d lived on the island for decades and knew all its idiosyncrasies. So when I found an apartment in La Lonja, the old town, Rory helped me fill in the application and vouched for me as a referee. After years of crashing in house shares, shacks and slums I had my very own apartment.
It was perfect - on the first floor of an 18th century terrace, chipped shutters opened onto a shabby little balcony that overlooked the beautiful gardens of the consulate. The little alleyway that separated my building from the garden saw a constant stream of tourists who took photos of my laundry hanging from above. The streets were filled with holiday makers, off duty yachties, African immigrants selling flashing sunglasses and Mallorquins strolling to work in-between siestas. Beyond the consulate was the marina. Superyachts and the Med were just a stone’s throw away. I skipped through the maze-like streets of the old town on the well-worn paths that surrounded the famous Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral.
Below my apartment was a bar run by two Englishmen who soon became good friends. I’d shuffle down there in my slippers, push through the revolving doors and revel in the air conditioning while attempting to write about poker rooms. Soon all the regulars in the bar were friends. I devised a game that involved the patrons climbing an obstacle course around the bar without being allowed to touch the floor. Occasionally a tourist would walk in to find a dozen of us crawling along the bar top, leaping from stool to stool and clinging to the skirting boards.
When I absolutely had to get some work done I’d lock myself away in my apartment at night in the sweltering heat, everything vibrating from the base of the tunes below. I’d emerge in the morning to find gifts left on my balcony - letters, flowers, bottles of wine… it was all part of the surreal charm of the place.
With my first pay cheque I bought a small, 2nd hand car that I named Big Red. I got more freelance writing gigs for lifestyle magazines on the island and nipped around in Big Red interviewing musicians and actors and reviewing restaurants and bars.
Keen to further integrate with the locals I heard about a charity event that wanted volunteers to swim around the smallest of the Balearic Islands, Formentera, to raise awareness for the cystic fibrosis charity Respiralia. I liked a good cause and fancied a swim so signed up enthusiastically without giving any thought to how un-fit I was after a year of eating steak up a mountain.
One of the journalists at the magazine introduced me to a DJ on the English language radio station and he suggested I come onto his breakfast show to tell his listeners about my plan to swim around Formentera. I happily nattered away on-air answering his questions and explaining that I’d done absolutely no training for the event whatsoever. We had such fun that they invited me back on the show after the swim. If I survived.
Later that week I took the ferry over to Formentera. The island is absolutely beautiful, very few roads, lots of bicycle riding Italians cycling along sandy paths surrounded by the most incredible beaches and azure waters. That evening the organisers of the swim put on a party in the main square where me and the other 200 swimmers ate, drank and danced the night away. Our accommodation was the floor of Formentera High School so the night’s sleep was hit and miss and by the time the sun came up I was just about ready for bed. Instead I waded out to sea to swim the 65kms around the island over the course of 3 days.
We were put in teams and mine was a lovely bunch of very funny bankers from Madrid. We took it in turns to swim and keep each other’s spirits up. While the people were brilliant and the location stunning, the swim itself was gruelling. The sun beat down relentlessly on my aching, salty muscles as I weaved in and out of smacks of jellyfish. Rescue helicopters flew overhead keeping an eye out for sharks and occasionally paramedics would abseil out of the choppers to fish out an exhausted swimmer with cramps and on one occasion a swimmer with a jellyfish sting to the eye. But at the end of each day we’d haul ourselves onto the catamaran, head to the school for a shower and sit on the beach with a bucket of beers to watch the sun set.
After the 3 days we had circumnavigated Formentera. Exhausted but overjoyed we posed for an emotional group photo on the beach, my last reserves of energy expended on hugging my new friends goodbye. I got the ferry back to Mallorca, went back on the radio and talked about how I’d laughed so hard I nearly drowned and how strangers had weed on my jellyfish stings. The producer of the radio station liked it, oddly, and offered me my own show. I was the new mid-morning radio host! By night I’d hit the town and come the morning I’d regale the night’s antics on the radio.
I did other more notable stuff like travel around the island in Big Red finding interesting Mallorquins who did good things. As a result, Europe’s largest English language newspaper, Euro Weekly, offered me a weekly column writing about what I’d got up to that week. Each week, up popped my photo in the paper with the headline, ‘Lucy on the Loose!’, like an escaped lunatic with a bucket list.
One week I was covering a fashion show for a magazine when a woman who ran a modelling agency approached me and asked if I would like to be on her books. I’d modelled when I was younger and absolutely hated it. I’ve got a funny, wonky face and find posing mortifying so modelling wasn’t an obvious choice, but my ego thought it a great idea and signed on the spot. So in between the radio show and writing for the magazine I’d trot along to castings. It was not a great idea though was it ego, it was a terrible idea. I never got jobs because I was an awkward wonky faced woman in her 30’s and it slowly but surely ate away at my self-esteem. I thought the answer to it all was losing weight, so I ate less and exercised more. Poor body. Poor head.
I decided to join a yearly pilgrimage walk with 10,000 others walking through the night from Palma to the old monastery in Lluc, 50km away. The tradition started in 1974 when bar owner Tolo Guell decided to walk to the monastery after his young daughter escaped unharmed from an accident. Now it’s a huge event that takes place each summer during the night to avoid the heat. There was an amazing buzz that evening as we left the city. Unlike marathons we got to talk to each other, there was a real sense of camaraderie. The route got darker and rougher with each kilometre, the temperature dropping sharply too. Each town we arrived at we met locals who had set up chairs outside their houses to cheer us on. Some had baked Mallorca’s traditional dish of ensaimadas, a delicious sweet bread pastry that they handed out to us. It was all really beautiful, I get a bit teary when it comes to human endeavour and good will and this walk had it in spades.
But after 6 hours I started to flag. I hadn’t warmed up enough and my pace was too fast. At 5am I hobbled into one village and the team of paramedics took me to one side and declared I had hypothermia. They wrapped me in tinfoil and baked me. No they didn’t, they wrapped me in tin foil and took me back to Palma. I limped for a day but other than that there was no harm done. Except for my disappointment, I wanted to get to that monastery. So the next weekend, after lots of sleep and fluids, I drove Big Red to the village I’d ground to a halt in, parked the car and continued where I’d left off.
I walked on country paths and through fields. A father and daughter gave me a lift (cheating a little bit) on the back of their horse drawn cart and shared their sobrasada – cured sausage - sandwiches with me. I made it to the start of the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range and the path that leads to the monastery. The steep rocky steps smoothed by thousands of pilgrims feet, the smell of pine trees, the spectacular views… my bucket was filled. When I eventually made it to the monastery I paid for a room for the night in one of the monk’s old dorms. I opened the shutters, climbed out onto the tiled roof, lay down and looked up at the stars. It’s one of my favourite memories.
Some weekends I’d jump on the back of my friend Jason’s motorbike and we’d take off to one of the town’s festivals where one pumped foam into the streets and another re-enacted the battle for Mallorca between the Moors and the Christians.
There was really no end of adventures to be had on this island. A friend had heard of a secret beach and he and his South American rock climbing friends wanted to go and camp there. They all squeezed into Big Red and we drove to the other side of the island, parked the car and hacked through a bit of bush before popping out onto the beautiful secluded beach. I swam in the sea as they climbed the rocks that hung over the crystal clear water. I stayed for a few hours as they lit a fire and made the cave their home. A week later I went back to see them and discovered things had gone wild. They were all very brown, barely clothed and quite stoned. I got in their inflatable dingy and my friend pulled me and my camera out to sea so I could take photos of them climbing the rocks. I practiced circus tricks with them on make shift trapeze wires and we sang songs around the camp fire. It sounds excruciatingly Instagram-my but fortunately there was none of that back then.
One of the magazines I wrote for wanted me to return to Formentera to cover the island’s guitar festival. They rang the morning I was due to leave to say the photographer they’d booked couldn’t make it and did I know of anyone who could take good photos. It was a wonderful stroke of luck because I got to take my lovely friend Vanessa who along with being a brilliant amateur photographer was also excellent fun. Off the two of us went on the ferry, bare foot and ebullient. The magazine had booked us a cabin on the beach and left backstage passes on the table. We couldn’t believe our luck.
Formentera falls on ley lines - imaginary lines drawn between two points that some spiritual folk believe have powers. As a result hippies flocked there in the 70’s and a free spirited philosophy remained. The night was thick with citronella and the sound of crickets rubbing their legs. We made our way to the festival in town and had a glorious time hanging out with old musicians who regaled us with tales of life on the road. An after party was held in an Irish/Mexican themed bar, which seemed reasonable on such an intriguing little island. Sombreros and shamrocks shook as the crowd bounced around in guinessy tequila puddles on the sandy floor. We just made it to the ferry home in time the next day.
Back on Mallorca, my friend Kelly and I went to stay with another friend Emilie who was looking after a beautiful old sailboat. There are some great photos of us catching up out at sea before we decided to jump in the water for a swim. It wasn’t until we’d got nice and tired that we realised her tender – the small boat that takes you to shore - was missing and we had no way of climbing back onto the sailboat. One of us would have to swim for it, we estimated it would take a few hours. Kelly and I tread water as we watched Emilie get smaller and smaller swimming to land. It wasn’t so fun anymore. In an incredible stroke of luck someone in a little sail boat saw Emilie and went to help her. They hauled her into the boat and came back for us, pulling us over the side like catch of the day.
On the 30th July a bomb underneath a patrol car exploded killing two Civil Guard policemen in the Mallorcan town of Palma Nova. The Basque Nationalist and Separatist movement ETA claimed responsibility. It was obviously devastating for the victims, their families and the police force and it understandably unnerved us all. The authorities clamped down on security and shut the radio station. Without my radio show I lost my weekly column. The pressure to get modelling work increased.
By the end of summer I started to get that familiar feeling that it was time to move on. Vanessa was going back to New Zealand and she persuaded me to come too. The modelling agency sent my headshots to agencies there and one signed me. I wrote my last articles for the magazines and threw in my chips, I was off to Wellington. Little did I know things were about to go bad.
In loving memory of Jason.